Medieval Heresy

Nothing Is What It Seems

Bernard of Clairvaux described the Templars as men whose bodies were protected by iron and whose souls were clothed in the breastplate of faith. Religious orthodoxy was seen as no less a part of their equipment than their swords and armour. This was just as well, for Outremer at this time was a hothouse of heterodox and heretical beliefs, both Christian and Muslim, as was southern France from where the order drew much of its support. The breastplate did its work; for nearly two centuries the Templars were seen as paragons of faith, and there was no suggestion that contamination had touched their souls. Moreover, within a century of their founding the Templars had entered into the Western imagination as the ideal of chivalry–and the guardians of the Holy Grail.

All of which adds to the irony of the Templars’ arrest in 1307 on charges of heresy and blasphemy. These charges and the Templars’ prosecution and trial are covered later in the book. This chapter looks at the wider context: the Templars’ encounter with strange religious systems whose doctrines can be traced back to some of the earliest Christian beliefs in the East. At the root of these beliefs, which spread westwards into Europe during the Crusades, was the radical idea that man inhabits a world of delusion in which nothing is what it seems.

Templars and Cathars

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Languedoc in southern France was the centre of a rich and complex religious life in which both Christian orthodoxy and heresy flourished. William of Puylaurens, the thirteenth-century chronicler of the region, reported heretic communities of Arians, Waldensians and Manichaeans. The Arians were the survival of that 900-year-old heresy that began in Alexandria and tended towards undermining the divinity of Jesus Christ, while the Waldensians were a new twelfth-century movement that espoused poverty, called for the distribution of property to the poor, rejected the authority of the clergy and claimed that anyone could preach, saying their literal reading of the Bible was all that was needed for salvation. According to Peter of Les Vauz de Cernay, another thirteenth-century chronicler, the Waldensians ‘were evil men, but very much less perverted than other heretics; they agreed with us in many matters, and differed in some’. The ‘other heretics’ were the Manichaeans, also known as Cathars, meaning ‘pure’.

Languedoc was a major source of Templar income and recruits. The Templars partly owed their great expansion in the region to the support of the nobility with whom they were in close alliance, the combination of nobles’ land and Templar capital allowing the establishment of new communities and the development of previously uncultivated territories. Some of these Templar patrons were renowned Cathar supporters.

Catharism first appeared in southern France sometime in the years following the First Crusade. Its adherents quickly became numerous and well organised, electing bishops, collecting funds and distributing money to the poor. But they could not accept that if there was only one God, and if God was the creator, and if God was good, that there should be suffering, illness and death in his world. The Cathars’ solution to this problem of evil in the world was to say there were really two creators and two worlds. The Cathars were dualists in that they believed in a good and an evil principle, the former the creator of the invisible and spiritual universe, the latter the creator of our material world. All matter was evil because it was the creation of the devil, but the ideal of renouncing the world was impractical for everyone, and so while most Cathars lived outwardly normal lives, pledging to renounce the evil world only on their deathbeds, a few lived the strict life of the perfecti.

Because human and animal procreation perpetuated matter, the perfecti abstained from eggs, milk, meat and women. But both ordinary Cathars and the perfecti actively shared in their belief that Christ was not part of this world of evil. Therefore he was not truly born of the Virgin Mary, nor had he human flesh, nor had he risen from the dead; salvation did not lie in his death and resurrection, which were merely a simulation; instead redemption would be gained by following Jesus’ teachings.

By 1200 the Cathar heresy had become so widespread that the Papacy was alarmed. Pope Innocent III said that the Cathars were ‘worse than the Saracens’, for not only did Catharism challenge the Church but by condemning procreation it threatened the very survival of the human race. In 1209 a crusade was launched against them–the Albigensian Crusade, as so many Cathars lived around Albi–and an inquisition was introduced. In that year the core of Cathar resistance withdrew to the castle of Montségur atop a great domed hill in the eastern Pyrenees, where they withstood assaults and sieges until capitulating in 1244. Some two hundred still refused to abjure their errors, were bound together within a stockade below the castle and were set ablaze on a huge funeral pyre. The Templars played no part in the Albigensian Crusade, which was bound to attack some of their own patrons, who were likewise patrons of the Cathars.

The Gnostics

The origins of Cathar dualism lay in the East where it can be traced back to the Christian Gnostics who flourished in the second and third centuries AD all round the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and perhaps also in Asia Minor and Greece. Gnosis is Greek for knowledge, and the Gnostics believed that salvation lay in their understanding of the true nature of creation. They believed that there were two worlds, the material world of evil and decay that had been made by an evil demiurge, the enemy of man, and the world of light where the primal God resides.

One of the most prominent Gnostics was Valentinus, who flourished around AD 140 in Alexandria and Rome. He claimed to possess the true knowledge of how the world had been created and how evil had come into being, a story that he introduced to his followers in terms of a cosmic myth. He conceived of a primal God, the centre of a divine harmony, who sends out manifestations of himself in pairs of male and female. Each pair was inferior to its predecessor, and Sophia, the female of the thirtieth pair, was the least perfect of all. She showed her imperfection not, like the angel Lucifer, by rebelling against God, but by desiring too ardently to be united to him, so that she fell through love, and the universe is formed out of her agony and remorse. As she fell she bore a son, the Demiurge, who rules this world of sadness and confusion, yet is incapable of realising anything beyond it.

Mankind inhabits a catastrophe not of God’s making, but the Gnostics said they knew the secret of salvation. At the moment of the cosmic blunder, sparks of the divine light, like slivers of shattered glass, became embedded in a portion of humankind. These people were the elect, and the Gnostic aim was to lead them back to God. Cosmic redemption, however, and not just personal salvation was necessary because the whole of creation had been a mistake; it had nothing to do with God, who had never intended that there should be a universe, indeed never intended man. Creation was a defective work, and so man lived in a meaningless world or in the iron control of evil powers; in any case he was caught in the trap of the material world which was sundered from the spirit of God.

Valentinus taught his followers that they could free themselves by attempting to quell their desires and by practising sexual abstinence. For in the polarity of the male and the female was mirrored the division, the duality, of the universe, so that the Last Judgement and the world's redemption would come–as Jesus says in the Gnostic Gospel of the Egyptians–'when the two become one, and the male with the female, there being neither male nor female'. Other Gnostics than Valentinus also had their stories, and some, instead of practising abstinence, promoted sexual licence, though the purpose was the same: to join the male and the female in order to achieve the desired oneness of the world. The crucifixion and resurrection has no place in these Gnostic stories; instead the role of Jesus was to descend from the primal God and impart to his disciples the secret tradition of the gnosis.

Islamic Dualism

Dualism was deeply rooted in the East and did not confine itself to Christianity. In fact the term Manichaean, the name some medieval French chroniclers gave to the Cathars, was used by the Byzantines to describe the dualist ideas of Mani, a third-century Persian, who drew on Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Babylonian Mandaeism, as well as Christianity. And so it was from several sources that dualism made its appearance in Islam. Though dualism is fundamentally incompatible with Islam, which teaches that God is the sole principle and is good, the political unity of the Muslim world had long been in decay, allowing for the manifestation of new religious tendencies.

Just as the Middle East was divided into local dynasties and subject to pressures from the Abbasid caliphate, the Seljuk Turks and the Fatimids of Egypt, not to mention the Byzantines, so it was divided into numerous sects. Among the Christians there were the Jacobites, Maronites, Copts and Orthodox, and among the Muslims the Sunnis and numerous heterodox groups that had evolved out of Shiism, among these the Qarmatian, Alawi, Druze and Ismaili movements, which were not only movements of belief but also initiatory secret societies with political aims tending towards the apocalyptic.

The Ismailis continued certain pre-Muslim beliefs, in particular dualism, in which they saw evil not as the absence of good but as part of the essence of both the world and its creator, who in turn may have been an emanation of an ultimate and unknowable God. Like the Gnostics they believed that man possesses slivers of the divine spark which, given possession of the secret knowledge, can reunite man with the unknown God. The Ismailis claimed to possess this knowledge.

But after Zengi’s conquest of Edessa in 1144 and the surrender of Damascus to his son Nur al-Din, the Zengid dynasty imposed Sunni Islam on the entire Muslim population of Syria, driving the Shia sects into inaccessible regions.

The Assassins

The Ismailis withdrew into that region of the coastal mountains, the Jebel al-Sariya, girded by the great Templar and Hospitaller strongholds of Tortosa, Chastel Blanc, Margat and Krak des Chevaliers, where the movement assumed its militant and murderous form known as the Assassins. From such strongholds as al-Ullayqa, Qadmus, Qalaat al-Kahf and especially Masyaf, headquarters of the Assassins’ leader, the Sheikh al-Jebel, the Old Man of the Mountain, they employed a strategy of assassination to influence and control anyone, mostly Sunni Muslims but sometimes also Christians, who might threaten their independence.

The Assassins’ particular glimpse of divine knowledge was described by Marco Polo, who encountered a branch at Alamut in Persia. The Assassins used drugs (including hashish, from which the word ‘assassin’ derives) to convince novices destined to become self-destructive feddayin, ‘the self-sacrificers’, that they had entered a garden of delights where fountains flowed with milk, honey and wine, and where houris, those maidens of Paradise, were likewise on tap. Brought back to their normal state, the initiates were told that they had indeed visited Paradise, which would certainly be forever theirs provided they gave absolute obedience to the commands of the Assassins’ imam.

According to the reports of European chroniclers, the Assassin leaders demonstrated their complete domination over their adepts by commanding them to leap from precipices to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives made the feddayins’ attacks that much more disturbing; their mission was to sow fear of the sect and at the same time weaken the resolve of their enemies by the murder of key figures. The Assassins infiltrated the ranks of their adversaries, and when they had won their victim’s trust they would kill him, always using a knife. These were suicide attacks, for apparently by design they themselves perished in carrying out their orders.

Among the Assassins’ Christian victims were Raymond II, count of Tripoli, in 1152; Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem, in 1192; and another Raymond, heir to the thrones of Antioch and Tripoli, who in 1213 was stabbed to death outside the door of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Tortosa. But the Assassins’ most famous attempt was against Saladin in 1176. As the champion of Sunni orthodoxy and leader of the Muslim resurgence, Saladin had already overthrown the Shia Fatimids in Egypt and was now in full cry against the Crusaders and the Assassins. He entered the Jebel al-Sariya to lay siege to Masyaf, but his soldiers reported mysterious powers about, while Saladin was disturbed by terrible dreams. One night he awoke suddenly to find on his bed some hot cakes of a type that only the Assassins baked and with them a poisoned dagger and a threatening verse. Convinced that Rashid al-Din Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain, had himself entered his tent, Saladin’s nerves gave way. He sent a message to Sinan asking for forgiveness and promised not to pursue his campaign against the Assassins provided he was granted safe conduct. Saladin was pardoned and hastened back to Cairo.

The Templars and the Old Man of the Mountain

The one effective organisation against the Assassins was the Templars. Being an undying corporate body, the Templars could not be intimidated by the death of one of their members. The Assassins themselves admitted that they never killed a Grand Master because they knew that someone equally good would be put in his place.

In their hatred of the Sunni, the Assassins sometimes found themselves in alliance with the Christians, and even under trying circumstances they were tolerated by the Crusader states and the Templars. After the Assassins murdered Raymond II, the count of Tripoli, in 1152–for no reason that anyone could figure out, unless they had been hired by Raymond’s wife–the Templars threatened to go after the Assassins, who readily agreed to pay an annual tribute of two thousand besants as a form of protection money. The Assassins and the Christians shared a common enemy, and it was in their interest to keep the peace with one another.

But on one significant occasion the Templars’ distrust of the Assassins led them to oppose the policy of King Amalric of Jerusalem, who had entered into talks with the Old Man of the Mountain. The Ismailis had always seen their leaders as the embodiment of emanations flowing from the unknowable God, but in 1164, in an apocalyptic moment, Rashid al-Din Sinan openly renounced Islam and declared that the resurrection had arrived. The contemporary Syrian chronicler Kamal al-Din described scenes of wild frenzy in the Jebel al-Sariya where ‘men and women mingled in drinking sessions, no man abstained from his sister or daughter, the women wore men’s clothes, and one of them declared that Sinan was God’. In fact the divine status accorded to the Old Man of the Mountain was general, according to the Spanish Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr, who wrote that all his followers treated him as God.

It was nine years after these events, in 1173, that Amalric attempted to negotiate an alliance with Sinan, one of its conditions being that the Assassins would convert to Christianity. But as Sinan’s envoy was returning from Jerusalem to Masyaf, bearing a safe–conduct from Amalric, he was ambushed and killed by some Templar knights. Only with the greatest difficulty was Amalric able to persuade Sinan that the attack was not of his doing. Meanwhile he accused the Templars of treason and of bringing the kingdom to the edge of ruin by destroying the chance of an advantageous alliance. The chronicler William of Tyre implied that the murder was prompted by a financial motive, for peace would have meant an end to the tribute paid by the Assassins to the Templars. Another chronicler, Walter Map, wrote that the Templars killed the envoy ‘lest (it is said) the belief of the infidels should be done away and peace and union reign’–in other words war justified the existence of the Templars, who feared the outbreak of peace.

The argument of Templar greed is typical of William of Tyre, for the order did not need the Assassins’ tribute. However, the Templars were likely concerned that King Amalric was being duped, for they understood that whatever religion the Assassins professed, it would be no more than an outer garment, just as Islam had been an outer garment, as the Assassins saw this world as mere illusion, and despite any conversion to Christianity their inner and secret beliefs would remain. The Templars controlled important castles adjacent to the Assassin enclave, castles that also controlled the passes to the yet more dangerous Sunni-held interior, and to have let their guard down on the word of such a sect would have been grossly irresponsible and cost the Templars their credibility in the West. In the event, the negotiations were never resumed; after Amalric died in 1174 Raymond III, count of Tripoli, was made regent, and as his own father had been murdered by the Assassins he shared the Templars’ distrust.

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